[Here is an edited, more polished version]
Mad Max: Fury Road is jump starting heated conversations about its portrayal of men and women and whether or not it is “feminist,” a term whose definition varies as often as the person who uses it. Now, I love a good action movie, and it certainly delivered on that; it’s essentially one continuous car chase. But surprisingly, the portrayals of women in the movie are refreshingly accurate and rather meaningful. As an earnest Catholic, I would not call the movie “deep,” but rare is the film that portrays men and women as both truly different but equal in value and humanity and which does not include a pre-marital roll in the hay.
Mad Max is a movie about land-pirates traveling on cars, trucks and motorcycles as their ships in a post-apocalyptic landscape. There is a basic tyrant, “Immortan Joe” who is male and runs an oppressed society called “The Citadel.” He has power because he controls water, a scare resource in the post-nuclear desert. His power is cemented by bands of “war boys” who appear generally brainwashed to seek even death in order to protect the Citadel or glorify the “Immortal.” Nothing too shocking here in power dynamics: control a scarce resource and have the muscle to defend it against competitors.
Things ramp up when the Immortal’s many “wives,” come into focus. Though oppressed, they remain rather innocent and physically undamaged because he keeps them locked away. Their purpose is obvious: produce heirs and war boys and look beautiful; Joe hates them to be harmed because their beauty is a large part of the value he finds in them–they are played by a band of leggy women who resemble Victoria’s Secret models. Now, “The Immortal’s” treatment of them is certainly no model of mutual love or anything remotely close, but it does reveal something true: that even in a desperate, dangerous world, beauty still matters and men (even bad men) still want to protect it. It also plays on the immense importance of woman as mothers, as bearing the gift of fertility which alone has the power to preserve society. All the muscle of the war boys eventually atrophies in time, but children live on and continue society.
The raw physicality of motherhood also makes an appearance: there is a scene intended to be a bit jarring, grotesque even, where a room full of over-weight women are hooked up to pumps on their breasts and they just sit there, all day it seems, producing breast milk for Immortan Joe and the war boys. This oddly captures the potency of motherhood and breast milk but also illustrates a dual attitude of reverence and oppression held towards women in this world. They are beautiful and have life-giving power and for this they are revered, but also locked up and forced into it. In a post-apocalyptic world, this seems highly realistic. Women are needed so badly for precisely their womanly gifts that their humanity is brushed aside and they are forced into service. This is something we need to be on the watch for in real life as well. We as women do have great gifts, but all too often can be exploited for it, such as in prostitution and pornography. Breastfeeding and motherhood are great, great goods, and a woman can be a mother and breastfeed but yet her personhood is not entirely encompassed by these activities. Mothers, in short, are alsohuman.
Enter Charlize Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, the driving force of the plot. Furiosa is no pampered beauty. She is tough, strong and willing to face sacrifice and pain. The impetus of the film’s conflict is Furiosa’s effort to liberate the wives of the Immortal and herself. She hides them as stowaways on her war rig (tanker truck) and goes rogue in an effort to return to the place of her birth, the green place with “many mothers.” She is ultimately aided by the fortuitous arrival of the wanderer Mad Max (Tom Hardy) who seeks his own escape. What I love about Furiosa is that despite all her war-hardened exterior, she still acts as a woman, not just as a woman doing a man’s job. Her motivation for freeing the wives is given no explanation apart from the fact the she is doing it, which leads to the conclusion that she is motivated by sincere concern for their well-being and sorrow at their mistreatment–in short, true human love. She is a warrior with a loving heart. Men can be like this too, but having Furiosa as a woman captures the sense of solidarity between them as women; she is less a rescuer of stranded damsels and more a fellow struggler against an oppressive system.
Furiosa puts her own survival on the line for them despite their physical weakness compared to hers and their rather cumbersomeness. And in a memorable turn of events, one of the wives turns her very physical weakness, a pregnancy, into strength by acting as a human shield for Furiosa to stop the Immortal from firing at her. It was so selfless and only able to work because of her “weaker” role as someone beautiful and full-of-life, but not physically strong because of this. Watching the portrayal of the value and strength of her apparent weakness, I couldn’t help but think of St. Paul’s letter to the 2 Corinthians “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And the greatest part, in case we thought women were always fluffy, is when the renegades arrive at their destination and it is a decimated remnant of what she remembered, but what remains is a band of tough-as-nails women–the “many mothers”–who had survived the collapse of their home and fought off all invaders and survived any way they could since then. They are a great band and show that women can become rough and tough if the situation demands it, and still be women. One of them keeps a large bag of various seeds in hopes of starting again. Women are preservers of life, uniquely gifted with welcoming new lives. As John Paul II wrote in his 1995 Letter to Women, in the area of “human relations and spiritual values,” “society certainly owes much to the ‘genius of women.’” (Letter to Women, 9). Mad Max’s Vuvalini are not saints by or meant to be shown as such, but they do possess a special nurturing quality towards life alongside their survival instincts that differs from Immortan Joe and the war boys of the Citadel.
Notably, the physical differences of women are not ignored. In one scene, a member of the Vuvalini falls easily in a strength-to-strength contest with one of the war boys. As unfortunate as it is, in a hand-to-hand battle, most men will outmatch most women. Not always, but almost always. The physical differences between men and women are not politically correct to mention, but they are real, and I give Mad Max credit for including that aspect of the sexes in addition to all the examples of intense, tough women.
So then what about the men? The Immortal is a pretty good example ofa man corrupted by power.
Mad Max himself is not so easy to place into a category. He is not quite an anti-hero but he isn’t a full-fledged hero either. He is a wandering survivor, captured by the Citadel’s war boys and exploited for his O positive blood type, the universal donor. He does not volunteer to help Furiosa but only reluctantly becomes enmeshed with them after seeking to evade the war boys during their clash with her. Later however when the ladies take a different route, he does offer counsel and puts his life on the line to help them out and take back the Citadel. Max does nothing dishonorable during the film; but is by no means chivalrous and he trusts no one.
One unusual thing about Max is that he isn’t motivated by a “save-the-damsel-in-distress” mentality nor is he driven by lust. On two occasions, he encounters half or fully naked women and is only annoyed! When he first discovers, by walking round the war rig, that Furiosa is carrying the scantily clad wives he expresses shock and annoyance that now the mission includes watching out for these weaker ones. He makes no overtures towards them whatsoever. He isn’t noble, but in today’s lust-driven age, it is refreshing to see. It is also accurate to how such a man would react; his life is marked by bare survival, not pleasure. Max sees Furiosa and the wives as some of the many and varied types of humans, nothing more for their womanhood and nothing less either.
Later, when the group arrives at Furiosa’s old home, the sentry is a woman screaming for help, to which Max only responds with an eye roll and a thumb point, “That’s bait.” It is rare to see such a manly character who does not take up a love interest or “bang a chick,” to put it coarsely, in a movie. He doesn’t make any advances towards Furiosa either, even though this seems like the likely pairing. Movies tend not to show a man being a man and a woman being a woman but not necessarily falling into each other’s arms. Romantic love is a good thing, but it is healthy to remember that men and woman can work together with respect for each other even when there is no romantic attachment.
The mutuality between men and women is completed in the end; Furiosa saves Max but he also saves her. After the final battle, she has bled out form a wound, and he revives her with a blood transfusion since he is the universal donor. It is hard ignore the christological overtones of her being literally “saved by his blood.” The act is totally selfless. Is Mad Max intentionally a type of Christ? Probably not, but christological typologies are both hard to avoid and highly riveting for a reason: Christ is the example par excellence of humanity; Christ is everything we look for and admire. Then finally, when the group arrives at the Citadel, having beaten the Immortal, Max makes sure that Furiosa is okay and that she is considered the rightful leader, then he leaves. He asks for nothing.
Am I saying this is a Christian movie or even a movie that Christians should see? No. Just for all the talk swirling around it, Mad Max: Fury Road contains a good deal of truth amidst all its turbulence. The apocalyptic landscape makes the rubber hit the road of reality: physical differences are real and relate to the differing gifts and abilities of men and women, and yet they share something more fundamental: their human goals and inherent value, made in the Image of God.